Detroit, Emergency Financial Managers, Michigan, Photos — July 19, 2013 at 10:37 am

The day Detroit went bankrupt: A photographer’s story.


“Like the phoenix, Detroit WILL rise again” – Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm

I had a meeting yesterday with a client looking for current photographs to reflect their growing business, with its many new employees and in its new location only 10 miles north on Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit. This client was a good 50-minute drive away from where I live so, rather than making the trip for in for a short meeting, I decided I would spend the rest of the day in Detroit to get some photographs.

Detroit has been in the news a lot lately, as you well know, and it’s been on my mind a lot too. I lived and worked in a city — St. Louis — that turned itself around and I think often about Detroit and hope that it can do the same. I know it’s complicated, but I remain hopeful.

After my meeting I headed down Woodward Avenue toward Detroit. I drove slowly and observed the changing urban landscape in that short 10-mile trip. The landscape was dotted with tall vacant buildings covered in graffiti and overgrown parking lots right next to active strip malls and businesses. The patches of abandonment and neglect were not all that surprising giving that the city has lost nearly 2/3 of its population.

Keep in mind Detroit’s population has declined but there are still about 750,000 people living there, 750,000 people who have to wait, on average, 58 minutes for police assistance. Despite the lack of basic security and many resources, there are plenty of Detroiters who are making it work. The Heidelberg Project is a great example of that. It isn’t all corruption and destruction; there is strength and resilience in this city. There is still plenty of creativity and innovation among the rubble — people with the same spirit as those who brought us Motown and the auto industry. I believe it’s still there. You can feel it when you’re in Detroit.

I did a few loops around the main downtown area from Tiger Stadium to the Cobo Center looking for good vantage points of the city, but I was drawn to the same views I see each time I go to the city. It was 95 degrees so staying close to my car’s air conditioner was appealing, but eventually I got sick of one-way roads and the pushy bus drivers so I parked, grabbed my photo equipment, and started walking.

A friend told me that if you head up the River Walk far enough north you can get some good skyline photographs. I walked for a while but the sun and heat began to take its toll on me in my black business attire. I turned around and headed back, hugging the railing along the Detroit River to find relief from the cool breeze drifting up from the water. I looked ahead down the river to the Ambassador Bridge and the Renaissance Center and across the water to Canada and thought about how Detroit is still a prime location. This has never changed.

I got back to my car, soaked in sweat but not ready to leave. Big billowing clouds began to form on the horizon and, as any photographer knows, clouds like those make a wonderful dramatic backdrop to any photo. So I decided to do a little more driving around.

Before I even left my parking spot I got a text from Chris saying that Detroit had officially filed for bankruptcy. As I drove down Jefferson Avenue, I noticed all the news vans parked in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and parked between vans to watch the newscasters filming live coverage of the city’s latest news. The meter flashed “EXPIRED” with the reflection of the Ren Cen in the glass. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I pulled back into traffic.

A bank of storm clouds began to slide over Detroit as I drove south down Jefferson. It went from bright sun to dark in an instant. I scrambled for one last photograph of the city before the rain came, so I headed to the roof of the Cobo Center to see if I could capture the impending storm. I took a few photographs and decided it was time to go home. As I got onto I-94 and started my drive back to Ann Arbor, the rain began to fall. It came down hard but where I was it was still sunny with blue skies ahead.

When I looked behind me in my rearview mirror I could see the darkest skies over Detroit and I couldn’t help but wonder how Detroit would fair this latest storm.